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Ontario grain farmers seek legal stay on ‘unworkable’ neonics cap

In this file photo, a farmer seeds canola near Standard, Alb.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The Grain Farmers of Ontario has gone to court to delay the implementation of restrictions on the use of pesticides some blame for the decline in populations of bees and other pollinators.

The group that represents 28,000 farmers said it wants the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to issue a stay on the "unworkable" regulations that will cap the amount of neonicotinoid-treated seed that growers of corn and soybean can plant.

The provincial regulations require farmers to limit neonic-treated seeds to 50 per cent of their fields next year, unless they submit assessments showing they have problems with worms and other crop-eating bugs. For 2017, they must undergo assessments to purchase any coated seeds.

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"These regulations are unworkable, pose a significant threat to our farmers, and set a precedent for a new way of farming for Ontario," said Mark Brock, chairman of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, on a conference call with media on Monday.

The problem, he says, is pest infestations cannot be properly measured until the spring, but farmers begin buying seed next month.

"We'll be asking the court to say there's enough here for this to be put on hold until we can look into it in a bit more detail," said Eric Gillespie, a lawyer acting for the group.

A spokesman for Ontario Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray said he could not comment specifically on the matter because it is before the courts. "Pollinators, including bees, birds and butterflies, play a crucial role in agriculture and our ecosystem. In the last eight years, Ontario beekeepers experienced unusually high overwinter losses of honeybees," Lucas Malinowski said.

Several scientific studies have linked neonics to widespread declines in honeybees and other insects that pollinate one-third of the food we eat. The chemical, a neurotoxin, has been shown to impair bees' abilities to forage and navigate, and makes them more susceptible to viruses, parasites and long winters.

Neonics have become widely used around the world in the past decade. Europe has temporarily banned their use, and governments in Canada and the United States are reviewing their approval, given the growing number of studies that show the chemicals are being found in streams and affecting populations of pollinators, aquatic life and birds.

In Canada, neonics are used to grow a wide range of crops, flowers, fruits, sod and vegetables. All Ontario's canola, corn for grain and about 60 per cent of soybeans are grown with neonics; the province says just 20 per cent of the crops require it. It wants to reduce the acreage planted with neonics by 80 per cent by 2017.

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The farmers' group and the chemical companies that make neonics and sell the treated seeds say neonics are a key tool in protecting rising yields, and that bee deaths are overstated. They say neonics are safer for humans and the environment than the chemical sprays they replaced.

The legal action marks a shift in strategy for the farm group. Previously, it had relied on an ad campaign backed in part by the chemical industry that makes the pesticides and sells the seeds.

Mr. Brock said the seed companies support the new tack, but are not contributing money toward it.

"Over the history of our group, Grain Farmers of Ontario has not always agreed with government, but always been able to find middle ground. This is the first time we've ever had to initiate legal action as an organization," he said.

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